Arab Governments Tighten Grip on Satellite Broadcasters

20 February 2008

QATAR: Television network al-Jazeera fears a new media code which attempts to regulate satellite broadcasting across the Arab region could curb freedom of expression.

The 22-member Arab League rubber-stamped the new charter at a meeting in Cairo last week - although Qatar, al-Jazeera's base, did not sign up.

The code gives authorities the power to withdraw permits from satellite channels judged to have offended national leaders or national or religious symbols.

Its authors declare its purpose is to limit damage to "social harmony, national unity, public order or traditional values".

It calls on broadcasters to avoid erotic content, or material that promotes smoking or alcohol; and to "protect Arab identity from the harmful effects of globalisation".

It allows signatory countries to "withdraw, freeze or not renew the work permits of media which break the regulations".

Al-Jazeera director-general Wadah Khanfar is alarmed by these developments.

"Any code of ethics or governance for journalistic practices should emerge, and be governed, from within the profession and not be imposed externally by political institutions."

He argues that some of the language is ambiguous and "could be interpreted to actively hinder independent reporting from the region".

The network, launched in 1996, has been a thorn in the side of many Arab governments, providing platforms for opposition groups and airing stories about human rights violations and election fraud.

Several countries have imposed reporting bans on the broadcaster.

It has also managed to irritate many Western governments, airing messages from 'terrorists' and offering alternative perspectives on the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Data sourced from Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff